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How Modi’s Hindu nationalism impairs global fight against climate change

What happens in India may seem a far-off concern, but it has spurred protests in Chicago and is shaping the climate here.

Boys cool off with a swim in a canal on a hot summer day in Sri Ganganagar in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. Beating the merciless heat is hard in the Indian desert city of Sri Ganganagar, a reality facing millions across the vast country as the climate changes in the coming decades.
Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

Amid a summer bewildering in terms of climate — with the Pacific Northwest experiencing a record heat wave, data suggesting that Chicago is becoming warmer, the devastating floods in western Europe, New Delhi hotter when it should be wetter — it can be useful to consider what India’s governing ideology of the day, Hindutva, means for the global fight against climate change.

The stakes with India are particularly high. It is the world’s largest democracy, home to one-sixth of the world’s population. What happens in India affects the world — including Chicago. And India, today, is perched at the high noon of Hindutva. The Hindutva-oriented Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently began his eighth year in office.

To assess how Hindutva — or Hindu nationalism — relates with climate change, looking at a related relationship can be valuable. In his acclaimed 2009 paper “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” the University of Chicago historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argued that climate change requires us to re-assess how we think about history. Humans now possess a geological agency; we are disrupting the very conditions necessary for our existence. Human history and the history of the natural world have now commingled.

It can similarly be argued that climate change requires us to re-assess how we think about Hindutva. We know that Hindutva is a majoritarian ideology, which impinges on the rights of India’s minorities, particularly Muslims. We know that in the context of the competing majoritarianisms of South Asia — especially in India’s neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh — Hindutva feeds majoritarianism in the region as a whole. But might the ideology also hold global, climatic implications?

Let me make four propositions.

The first proposition is that Hindutva advances spurious science, thereby structurally impairing prospects for combating climate change. Modi and others associated with his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have frequently argued, without evidence, that ancient India mastered modern scientific achievements. They assert that airplanes, nuclear weapons, the internet, and much else was already invented back then. Of late, BJP leaders have recommended drinking cow urine — the cow holy to many Hindus — as a solution to COVID-19. Only recently, Modi’s former health minister helped launch a suspect COVID-19 cure. In such a scientifically spurious context, the pursuit of a hard-nosed, consistent approach to fighting climate change becomes challenging.

The second proposition is that the advancement of Hindutva culture wars distracts attention from pressing issues, including climate change. Much of Modi’s time in power has involved the marginalization of Muslims, particularly over perceived historical wrongs. As just one example, through the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, coupled with the planned National Register of Citizens, Muslims’ place in the Indian polity has been made suspect. These measures are understood to have been advanced to finish the “unfinished business” of British India’s partition in 1947, into India and Pakistan. Muslims alone are wrongly blamed for Partition, and their progeny today are being asked to pay the price. Such governmental measures have spurred extra-governmental actions, too, against Muslims; these have included vigilante lynchings. Any society, any government, possesses only finite time and attention. Internecine culture wars eat up this capacity, pulling attention from real challenges to the grievances of imagined history.

The third proposition is that given Hindutva’s authoritarian quality, it presents a bigger black box compared with transparent, inclusive, accountable democracy. More can go wrong with the climate under Hindutva than under a more democratic-minded regime. Modi runs a highly centralized government, with little space for dissent. He hasn’t held a single press conference on Indian soil as prime minister — barring one where he directed all questions to his deputy Amit Shah. Further, his government and party have harassed the country’s independent media. Much of the mainstream media by this point has taken on the mien of state media, parroting the government’s line. As a result, there is limited questioning, discussion, and accountability over important issues such as climate change.

The fourth proposition is that the tensions that Hindutva nurtures, regionally and internationally, weakens the capacity for concerted action against climate change. In presenting India as a muscular Hindu polity, Hindutva discourse paints Pakistan as an arch Islamist enemy. Irrespective of whether Pakistan is India’s enemy or not, there is an inner compulsion to Hindutva to paint it as such. With such a “muscular” discourse, Modi’s government has alienated Bangladesh as well. His deputy Amit Shah referred to illegal Bangladeshi migrants as “termites,” threatening to throw them into the Bay of Bengal. The CAA-NRC measures drew the opprobrium of multiple countries across the world, precipitating protests globally, including in Chicago. Hindutva’s instigating of such discord weakens the regional, international capacity for fighting climate change.

These four propositions, taken together, elevate the concerns with Hindutva. It becomes disconcerting not only at the level of human rights within India, or at the level of competing regional majoritarianisms — concerns which are grave enough as it is. Hindutva becomes worrisome also at the global, climatic, geological level.

To be clear, I am not making claims regarding how Hinduism, the religion, relates with the fight against climate change. I am arguing about how Hindutva, an ideological-political project, weakens the fight against climate change. Also, India under Modi may, in policy specifics, have sought to address climate change — such as by signing the Paris Agreement. Structurally, however, the country’s approach remains hobbled by Hindutva.

This is bad for the residents of Delhi, who have sweated under the sun even as the clouds have remained unexpectedly dry for much of the summer. It is additionally bad for people all the way in Portland and Vancouver, Bavaria and here in Chicago, who find themselves experiencing wildfires and floods and soaring temperatures. Indeed, Chicago’s future as a city next to a fluctuating lake is contingent on how the world combats climate change. Hindutva may seem a far-off concern, but it has spurred protests in and is shaping the climate here in Chicago. Just as climate change knows no boundaries, the harms of Hindutva know no boundaries, either.

Abhimanyu Chandra recently graduated with an M.A. in South Asian languages and civilization from the University of Chicago.